Plenty of properties in the modern entertainment age have been born, reborn, tooled and retooled. But whether it’s the timelessness of its essence or the fact that its vogue happens to come at a cross-media time, Peter Pan is currently undergoing a particularly intense resurgence.
Last week the J.M. Barrie origin story “Finding Neverland” -- based on the hit Johnny Depp film and produced by Harvey Weinstein -- opened on Broadway. Ticket sales (if not reviews) have been solid, and producers wasted little time Tuesday announcing they’d be taking the show on the road beginning next year.
This is all the tip of the spear -- or, well, a different dangerously pointy implement. “Neverland” follows NBC’s live Allison Williams version of “Peter Pan” in December and the Tony-decorated run of another Peter Pan origin story, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” on Broadway in 2012 (and at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa beginning May 8), picking up on a tradition that began when the Mary Martin version was first staged half a century before.
A number of competing Pan films, meanwhile (including an adaptation of “Starcatcher”), have been in a race to get to the production finish line. At least one has — “Pan,” yet another origin story, this one directed by the prestige helmer Joe Wright and starring Hugh Jackman. It’s actually OK to grow up, because all the Peter Pan creations will be waiting for you on the other side anyway.
After previously moving the film from June to July, Warner Bros. on Monday made a more notable switch by plucking "Pan" out of summer and dropping it onto Oct. 9. That puts it putatively in awards contention, but the more likely motivation is to get it out of the way of the summer juggernauts — the “Ant-Man” and “Mission: Impossible” competition that would surround it there. (There’s a separate post in how the summer is increasingly inhospitable to big-budget movies if the those big budgets aren’t attached to comic books or sequels, but that’s another matter.)
Either way, the effect of this is to spread out the Pan renaissance further. The movie will debut nearly a year after NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!” and, if “Neverland” producers have their way, while their show is in the thick of a very healthy run. If the film does well, don’t be surprised if “Starcatcher” or another project gets some renewed development traction.
One interesting aspect of this renaissance is that, unlike the large corporate umbrella under which efforts for other properties have been undertaken, the Pan output is more fragmented and being driven a by a host of entities, from Warner to Weinstein. Pan is in an interesting position legally, since some but not all is in the public domain — mainly, the 1904 play “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow up," and the 1911 story “Peter and Wendy." But the revised script of the play wasn’t published until 1928, which still puts it under copyright protection. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing so many origin stories — sure, it’s nice to know where Peter and Wendy came from, but it’s even nicer if you don’t have to worry about licensing the copyright for where they end up.
The question is: How much Pan can we take? Some academic types will say that our continued attraction to the story reflects our culture’s own emphasis on never growing up, so we shouldn’t be surprised by it. Creators, meanwhile, say there’s a certain malleability to the franchise: The story of eternal youth and magical, faraway lands and baroque villains undergird many a tale, so what if a few of them happen to come under the presold Peter Pan imprimatur? Fair enough. But Peter Pan, for all the universality of the character, has some very specific and special hallmarks as well, and each time a producer mines them they get a little less so.
In fact, all icons are classified that way for a reason — because they seem larger than almost anything else. And by the time we get done parsing every strand on Captain Hook’s face, every piece of clothing worn by Tiger Lily and every special-effect enhancement imposed on Tinkerbell, it might seem just a little less of that as well.
I'm a reasonably dedicated Pan aficionado -- even a childhood acquaintance named Wendy would send me down the imagination rabbit hole, or to Neverland. But at some point even fans see their enthusiasm wane. Pan-mania conjures the age-old question that these days seems to be answered in increasingly one direction: Just because you can revive a property, does that mean you should?
Peter Pan spinoffs will keep coming. Some of them have even been good, and others will continue to be so. But if the “Peter Pan” story reflects our cultural desire not to grow up, there’s one way to ensure that desire is fulfilled: Keep telling us the story over and over again.